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The House of Mirth: Essay Questions

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1.  Describe Lily and make references to her background, ambitions and personal values.


Lily’s childhood is described as opulent, but this comes to an end when her father tells her and her mother that they are ruined. It is evident that her mother expected him to provide more and more according to her whims and this love of endless spending without thought of the consequences is the backdrop to Lily’s character.


She describes herself as ‘very useless’ when she talks to Selden for the last time and this reiterates how she and other women of her class are raised for little more than decoration. She has had no training or education that is spoken of and her clumsy work at the milliner’s demonstrates how unable she is to provide a living for herself.


In contrast with this preference for luxury and high living, Lily has integrity and this is in sharp contrast with others in her set. Beneath the desire for spending, she cannot bear to be indebted to Trenor and although she knows she must marry a wealthy man to maintain the life she wants, she sabotages her own attempts at ensnaring Gryce.


2. Consider how the elite of society are represented in this novel and make references to the title.


As Victoria Glendinning explains in her Introduction (The House of Mirth: 1993), the title is taken from Ecclesiastes: ‘The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth’. The fools that populate this work appear to do little more than entertain each other and maintain the hypocritical values they choose to live by. The pleasure comes from the enjoyment of opulence and the discomfort of others. These old New Yorkers are also described as a caste where newcomers such as Rosedale, the Brys and the Gormers need acceptance as well as wealth to gain entry.


Wharton originates from this type of society and here she satirizes the elite group for its superficial value system and unfriendliness. Lily comes to see that those of her set do not recognize the continuity of life; instead, they are like atoms that whirl away from each other.


3. Expand on the reasons why Lily becomes ostracized from her set.


Because her set value appearance over everything else and because of the hypocrisy associated with male and female sexuality, she is ostracized because of the rumors that she has had a relationship with Dorset and has taken money from Trenor.


As a single woman, she is at the bottom of this social hierarchy and Bertha is believed because she is more influential as a married wealthy woman. Lily has the opportunity to clear her name and gain revenge, but integrity and a certain element of guilt (at trying to distract Dorset from his wife’s affair) stop her from using the little power she has at her disposal.


4. Analyze the depiction of marriage and female sexuality.


The status of the upper-class women is seen here to be dependent on whether she has been married or not, and how much money she has. This is apparent in the contrast between Bertha and Lily as the former has more freedom because she is a wealthy married woman.


The hypocrisy about sexuality and promiscuity is most evident when one notes that Selden is never castigated for his earlier adulterous affair with Bertha. It is only the women that are potential targets for gossip and ostracism and this in turn depends on the position of power the woman in question has. Lily is clearly used as a scapegoat by not only Bertha, but also her set as they unite against her to reinforce the rules of acceptable behavior. It is ironic that Lily is still a virgin by the end of the novel and has been ousted for only the suggestion of her having had sexual relations.


This use of the woman as scapegoat is also a way of warning others to behave as the group decides and is drawn from a centuries old patriarchal code that deems female sexuality to be dangerous and unnatural.


5. Consider the ways the subject of equality between the sexes is negotiated.


Lily has a mantra that consists of her railing against the unfairness of life for the poor marriageable girl. In the first chapter, for example, she visits Selden in his rooms and demonstrates an envy of his life as a single independent male. She represents the woman who has been trained for nothing but ornamentation and is only raised in preparation for marriage.


By contrast, Selden is a lawyer and is still accepted by the set even if he is wearing a shabby coat. As Lily rightly points out, women in her group are invited to dine for their appearance as much as their presence. It is part of Lily’s downfall, however, that she recognizes and despises this, but is unable to see that there is another acceptable way of living one’s life and this is embodied in Gerty Farish.


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